Many university students around the world spend some time experiencing life in another country, whether for a semester abroad or a gap year. For Chinese students, study abroad isn’t just an eye-opening experience that you fondly reminisce about in your middle age. Studying abroad is a necessary means to get a better job, income, and life for you and your family.
In the 1970s, it was nearly impossible to leave the country, especially to study at a foreign university. The first group of Chinese students to study abroad in recent history left the country in 1979. 52 students went to American universities. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the number of Chinese students studying abroad was less than 30,000 per year. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the number of Chinese students leaving the country for university broke 50,000 and then exploded to 350,000 in just 10 years.
In 2017 the total number of Chinese students studying abroad was 1.5 million, according to the Ministry of Education. In the USA, Chinese students comprise 30% of the foreign students attending university. What makes students and their families decide to leave the country for an expensive education far from their friends and their families?
Most Chinese university students aren’t just doing a semester abroad but applying to a full 4-year degree program in Europe or North America. While the experience of studying in another language and with students from a different culture provides them with valuable experience and a competitive advantage on their resume, attending an expensive foreign university is also a status symbol. The increased interest in foreign travel and studies coincides with China’s exponential economic growth which provides families with disposable income and the means to send their children to the fanciest and most expensive schools in the world.
In addition to the prestige of studying at a foreign university, applying to schools in Europe and North American relieves Chinese students of the pressure from the gaokao or Chinese college entrance exams. While Chinese universities base admission on test scores alone, many foreign universities also look at other criteria such as grades, extra curricular activities, and essays. Instead of competing with their peers for limited admission spots at China’s elite C9 universities, they can choose from dozens of qualified universities around the world.
Studying abroad provides millions of Chinese students with a global perspective and a competitive advantage in the job market. Although as more and more Chinese students end up at foreign schools, the distinction starts to lose its edge and become an expectation rather than a privilege.